- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Big Ten media days are officially just one week away. To get you more ready than you ever thought you needed to be, we're looking at three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear.
1. What reasons are there for optimism in Boilermakers country?
There's simply no way around it. The first season under Hazell was an unmitigated disaster, as Purdue went 1-11 and ranked at or near the bottom of virtually every major statistical category on offense and defense. Teams often improve in the second year of a new coach, so there's a place to start. And the Boilers' nonconference schedule is much easier than it was last fall, leading to a possible quick improvement on the wins total by the end of September. Still, there aren't many big names on either side of the ball -- look at that player list again and notice the lack of any all-conference honorees -- and this program has to make huge strides just to be competitive in Big Ten play. It's up to Hazell and the players to create some reasons to get interested again in the Boilers.
2. What's the identity on offense?
Hazell has often talked about wanting to be a power-run based team, but the roster he inherited was built more for a spread attack. That meant the offense often looked lost without any discernible identity last year except for throwing the ball a bunch after falling behind early in games. Danny Etling did some nice things as a true freshman quarterback after taking over midseason for Rob Henry a few games into 2013. Despite a lack of playmakers around him, he put up decent numbers down the stretch -- the only question is whether he's the future at the position, or whether David Blough eventually supersedes him. DeAngelo Yancey also had a nice freshman year at receiver and could be a leader there this year. The backfield should boast plenty of speed with Mostert -- who piled up Big Ten sprint titles during track season -- and Akeem Hunt. Offensive coordinator John Shoop has to find better ways of maximizing the talent on hand and increasing the production of a unit that averaged a sickly 14.9 points per game last season.
3. Who steps forward on defense?
Not to belabor the point, but the defense was just as bad as the offense last year while allowing 38 points per game. It also lost a couple of its best players in interception-hogging cornerback Ricardo Allen and defensive tackle Bruce Gaston. Russell has had all the tools to become a star but has yet to put it all together in his career. Massive defensive tackle Ra'Zahan Howard had an encouraging spring. The Boilers' linebacker corps has been a sore spot for the past several years; Robinson, a former quarterback who converted to defense just last summer, is already one of the best players at his position. Perhaps some newcomers like Gelen Robinson can make an impact. There's little doubt that more playmakers are desperately needed on that side of the ball. Who will they be?
16hMitch Sherman and Josh Moyer
5dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman